Here’s to Alex Rodriguez, the villain baseball needed.
Baseball’s greatest strength has always been its propensity to be as much Spoon River Anthology as it is sport. There is a folk history of the United States constantly being played out on a baseball diamond, and the players that have walked the American and National Leagues’ base paths are the characters that color the pages for so many people, providing all the heroic feats and villainous antics anyone could ever need. Baseball’s dwindling American popularity in recent years leads to a sense that that mythic quality may have been lost somewhat. Fewer players work their way into the national consciousness to achieve the level of legend or infamy to matter in the romantic history of baseball.
Alex Rodriguez achieved that legend and that infamy in one career. Now he’s retired. Raise a glass.
Rodriguez’s career began with all the markings of a chosen one coming into his own. His major league debut as a teenager put him in rarefied air at the very start of his playing days. His numbers placed him in the same conversations as the titans of the game: Joe DiMaggio. Ty Cobb. Al Kaline. When he started at shortstop in the 1997 All-Star game, still just 21 years old, he displaced baseball’s iron man, Cal Ripken Jr., who played 2,632 consecutive games in his career and had started the All-Star game at shortstop every year for thirteen years before ’97 (Ripken, for the record, still started the game, but at third base).
But it will always be Rodriguez’s villainy, to both opposing teams and fans of his own clubs, that cements the character accompanying his statistics. As he got older, got more rich and most importantly got really, really petty, A-Rod’s personality started overtaking his numbers. A brief list of misdeeds:
- Spurning the Mariners for a ten-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers
- Getting traded to the Yankees, an act enough to make him a villain for 90% of the league anyway
- Slapping the ball out of the glove of Bronson Arroyo in the 2004 ALCS, allowing the Yankees to pull within a run before umpires agree he interfered with play
- Flirting with free agency in 2007 in order to secure another, even bigger ten-year contract by toying with the Yankees’ front office (with the help of noted agent/probably devil-worshipper Scott Boras)
- Rumors of having an extra-marital affair with Madonna, of all people
- Implicated in initial performance enhancing drug report in 2009
- Handed a season-long suspension for the Biogenesis PED report, which he fought vigorously in court. During the build-up to the final suspension, the Yankees tried to quietly shuffle him out of the lineup as much as possible after his recovery from a surgery, which he ruined by publicly stating he was fit to play.
- After a year-long suspension from baseball and nearly 40 years old, still coming back to play a season and a half of baseball and rake in more money off of that ten-year deal.
It’s not that A-Rod was a genuinely unsavory person. It’s that he did just enough to make many people dislike him. Many focus on his role in the Biogenesis scandal and admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs as the main touchstone in his story, but that second contract he and Boras worked out with the Yankees is still stunning. $275 million over ten years to a player in his thirties. Yes, he was coming off of an MVP season, but the sheer gall in asking (and receiving!) millions of dollars to play baseball in your forties is something to behold. And to make the whole situation even more juicy, his initial announcement that he would not renew his contract with the Yankees came during Game 4 of the World Series, managing to distract the baseball world for a brief moment from the Red Sox triumph. A-Rod delivered the goods for the Yankees on the field many times, but he also rubbed just about everyone the wrong way doing it as well.
There are plenty of baseball legends who were legitimately nasty people who did very bad things. Ty Cobb, renowned for his manic style of play, left more than a few spike marks in the legs of opposing teams defending the basepaths. Pete Rose gambled extensively on games he was coaching as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds and then spent decades lying about it, until giving a huge, fame-grabbing tell-all to Sports Illustrated at a time that seemed opportunistic at best.
The biggest strike Rodriguez has against him is steroid usage, and thanks to both the rampant nature of steroids at the time he tested positively and a bigger preceding steroid villain (Barry Bonds), even that blight on A-Rod’s record seems small. No, it was the little things that made him so unlikable, the way he conducted his business and the middling returns he delivered on those massive contracts at times (at one point he earned the nickname “The Cooler” for a reputation of his clubs’ faltering wherever he seemed to sign. Despite being one of the best hitters ever, A-Rod only ever made it to the World Series once, winning in 2009).
However, his stats are undeniable. Rodriguez retires as the fourth leading home-run-hitter in MLB history, just four shy of the magical 700 number. He’ll have a career batting average just under .300, attesting to a consistency that endured despite accusations to the contrary as his time with the Yankees wore on. Not only did A-Rod reach another legendary mark in his career, 3,000 hits, but for his 3,000th hit, he went and homered. Numbers-wise, he’s one of the best hitters to ever play the game. And it’s that greatness combined with his pettiness that turned Rodriguez into a special character: The villain that is first castigated, then maligned, and then, through sheer force of talent, is loved.
Baseball as sport has no need for personality. It is ruthlessly dry and tactically complex, being constantly dissected by numbers, percentages, and averages for any possible category you can think of. Pitch speed. On-base percentage. Batting average. Slugging percentage. Runs batted in. And we haven’t even gotten to the advanced analytics; UZR, the various WARs and so on. But baseball as a story needs personalities. It craves them. It needs narrative and storylines and the characters that drive them, and it needs Rickey Henderson mouthing off about all his stolen bases as much as it does Kirk Gibson hitting a walk-off home run despite barely being able to walk.
Alex Rodriguez didn’t just create moments on the field; he shaped a narrative in and around the stadium. And in doing so, he created one of the most interesting kinds of characters: the polarizing figure, the evil empire’s villain, the guy you either love or you hate. Either way, you’re still talking about him. Alex Rodriguez was that guy, at a time when baseball didn’t have many.
And so it is in the fading outfield lights of baseball’s history that A-Rod finishes his playing career. Two years ago, another Yankee made his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, exiting to thunderous applause as a modern hero of the game. Rodriguez won’t command nearly the same respect as Derek Jeter, and that’s alright. Because A-Rod was the villain and the scapegoat and the legend baseball needed in his time. He’ll retire as an all-time great or an all-time cheat or an all-time loser to whoever happens to be thinking of him. But he’ll be there, in the yellowed pages where Casey is always on deck, Satchel Paige is sitting on the mound, and Babe Ruth is pointing out into the crowd. Where Jeter’s tipping his hat and Ripken is lacing up his spikes, and Benny the Jet is trying to steal home again. A-Rod will always be there.